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Using digital twins to improve operations at Vancouver’s airport

During the COVID pandemic, many airports, including Vancouver International Airport (YVR) in Canada, experienced unique challenges due to increased travel demands. With a new CEO at the helm, the Vancouver Airport Authority administration decided to focus on digital twin technology instead of investing in additional physical infrastructure.

The digital twin is a virtual, real-time interactive YVR representation that offers access to the airport terminal, airfield and Sea Island and Musqueam lands. This technology enables the airport to continue to grow and adapt to changing conditions. For example, the digital twin can train, optimize, plan, simulate and test by visualizing data in a way that doesn’t impact airport operations.

The airport continuously collects data on passenger movements, complex logistics and flight schedules. This data is invaluable in helping the airport run smoothly. The digital twin allows the administration to use data in new ways through 2D and 3D visualizations. This enables data-driven decision-making and collaboration that the administration says has never been possible before. It benefits both the operations and passenger experience at YVR, according to executives.

The airport initially invested $4 million in the digital twins, and it was the first airport in Canada to use this technology.

After building the digital twin model, the management team and developers then started finding ways to use the data. “We started with our operations team and expanded from there. And it’s going so well that next year, we’ll be opening up our digital twin to industry and higher education stakeholders,” explained Christopher Goodland, director of innovative travel solutions at the Vancouver Airport Authority, in a webinar.

Besides aviation, leaders can also use the technology in other industries to help solve global challenges. The Innovation Hub @YVR, for instance, can connect with local businesses and community members to brainstorm new ideas that will support the future growth of the Vancouver region.

Some specific use cases of the digital twin at YVR include:

  • The digital twin allows users to see detailed maps of the facility and shows real-time information about work orders for the airport’s maintenance team. This integration with the GIS team and IBM Maximo work order system enables the maintenance staff to stay on top of daily tasks. With this information, they can quickly locate and complete each work order efficiently.
  • The airport gathers data about passenger demand from various sources. This includes historical information, airline partnerships that provide real-time passenger counts and manual counting using sensors in the terminal. This data helps the airport forecast wait times and identify potential processing issues at the airport. Employees use this information to create accurate forecasts throughout the day, which allows YVR to provide better service to passengers.​
  • The YVR airport uses the digital twin to provide real-time information to its dispatchers and airside staff. These models incorporate data from the system provided by NAV Canada, which allows users to track aircraft movements and emissions. By doing so, YVR can make more efficient operational decisions that reduce wait times and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The digital model provides information about aircraft movements and can simulate various scenarios, such as weather or ocean levels. They are beneficial for emergency planning and other tasks that require detailed knowledge of the airport environment.
  • The digital twin can monitor and analyze people’s flow, ensuring adequate space for queuing or evacuating in an emergency. A digital twin can provide valuable data for improving airport operations, such as capacity planning.

Regarding future use of the digital twin, Goodland commented, “We’re really passionate about this technology. And we’re just scratching the surface of its ability and where we will go in the future. But this is a team sport. Through our innovation hub at YVR, we are working to create this ecosystem of partners and stakeholders where we can all work together on our digital twin.”

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